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Faith that exceeds flannel-graphs.
An excerpt from my book ‘Finding God in the Darkness’.
This post originally appeared on 1517, and has been excerpted and adapted from my book ‘Finding God in the Darkness: Hopeful Reflections from the Pits of Depression, Despair, and Disappointment’. Order your copy today.
The Christian faith is, in every way, a bloody faith, and that ought not to make you fearful or scared or embarrassed. “Christian religion is covered in blood,” writes Abilene Christian University theology professor Brad East. “Wherever you look, you’re bound to see red.” For some, this might cause no small amount of trepidation. Integral to your faith, however, is a consideration of the violence of the cross and the blood that was spilled there — specifically, the blood that “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). The notion that the scaffolding of your faith is a structure of violent belief can seem untenable within our current cultural context and social climate. But, to be sure, Christianity’s unpopularity isn’t a modern novelty. This is nothing new. Those within the church felt detested as early as the first century when congregants of the early church were accused of cannibalism because they found so much hope in blood that had been shed for them.
That recoil was brought to the fore again in 2004 during the lead-up to Mel Gibson’s much-discussed and much-maligned film, The Passion of the Christ. Upon its release, critics both within and without the faith rushed to decry the project as an exploitative experience which, according to one reviewer, succeeded “more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it.” When a movie about Christ is being boycotted by the church because of its grotesque depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, it is, perhaps, a good indication that the church has forgotten the scandal which makes our faith so brutally precious. Such is what Gibson, in his own words, was intent on depicting.
“I wanted it to be shocking; and I wanted it to be extreme,” Gibson said a revealing primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, “So that they see the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule. The actual crucifixion was more violent than what was shown on the film, but I thought no one would get anything out of it.” Maybe all those flannel-graph lessons in Sunday school did too good of a job at sanitizing the sight of the cross.
Nevertheless, we ought not to shy away from the portrait of a bleeding God. The cross is offensive, and that’s okay. “It grates on us,” notes Harold Senkbeil, “that God would achieve his highest purpose through lowly degradation and in such disgusting squalor, by using human flesh and bone; nails, spear, and wood; blood, sweat, and spit” (46). Within that divine-yet-human plasma that co-mingles with Jewish dirt lies the remission for every single one of my sins and the sins of all who believe. The goriness of Golgotha is glorified in the recognition that the crimson stream that flows from Jesus’s veins isn’t only royal, it’s divine. The blood of the cross that washes sin-stained scoundrels whiter than snow is nothing less than the blood of God. Such is the gracious absurdity of the gospel of God.
Harold Senkbeil, Christ and Calamity: Grace & Gratitude in the Darkest Valley (Bellingham, VA: Lexham Press, 2020).